Light and Air
Lucy Gregg Muir
“It’s snowing.” Lisa pulled the moth-eaten fur throw up to her nose and the wool hat low over her forehead, her eyes the only sign of life under the thick pile of blankets that covered her on the narrow bed.
She coughed, the sound of her affliction echoing into the darkness, prompting a hacking reply from one of the other patients in the line of sufferers on the long sleeping porches of the sanatorium. It was a call and response that would repeat throughout the night, one to the other, as if to ask I’m still alive. Are you?
“Did you hear me, Evie?” She coughed again. “It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s snowing.”
Snow whispered through the pines and in the distance a train whistle blew at the crossing in Bloomfield.
“You okay, Evie?” When her friend didn’t respond, Lisa turned toward the soft wheezing coming from the bed next to hers. “Evie? You’re not coughing. You need to cough.”
Evie’s shallow breathing sounded as if it was scraping the edges of her lungs. “I’m okay, Lisa,” she said, exhaling through a thin, forced cough. “I love snow.”
“Me, too.” Lisa put her head back on the pillow and stared at the large flakes flitting through the lamplight. “I remember a time when I was little and it snowed for days and days and days. We couldn’t even see out of --” Without thinking, she placed a hand on her chest as if it would stop the racking that had become a part of her, the cough that ruled her existence.
Evie’s wheezing got louder. “You okay?” It was now her turn to worry, turning her head on the pillow toward Lisa.
“Yes,” Lisa said between spasms.
Rumors of new medicines that might treat their misery passed from patient to patient in whispered breaths, voices quiet so as not to disturb their cranky lungs or tempt the irascible future. They hoped for some tangible relief, something other than the tired mantra of light and air, something other than sleeping outside on frigid nights in the dead of winter to keep their lungs open, their hearts beating. But it was 1942 and medical research was focused on the war - on support of the troops who had recently been called to the Pacific; the troops who were fighting for freedom.
“Come get in bed with me,” said Evie. “Tell me about last Christmas again.”
Lisa didn’t want to remember last Christmas. She didn’t want to remember Johnny.
“Please, Lisa.” Evie often begged Lisa to tell her stories about her life, her family, her Johnny. When Lisa asked Evie to tell a story, however, Evie would simply say, “I have no stories to tell.” Lisa knew only that Evie was the daughter of a woman who had borne her late in life and a father who ran off shortly thereafter. Evie’s eighteen years had evidently been as cold as the bed she was now confined to.
“Okay, Evie,” Lisa said. “I’ll get in bed with you. Are you ready?”
“Ready,” Evie wheezed. She put her hand on the edge of the stack of blankets that covered her, ready to pull them back to let Lisa in.
Lisa took a shallow breath and held it. She pulled back her own blankets, got out of bed, quickly tucked the blankets back in to hold whatever warmth that might remain, then rushed into Evie’s bed. Evie pulled the blankets tightly around their thin, tired bodies. Lisa released her breath in a long trumpeting growl. Despite trying to contain it within the blankets, the sound reverberated into the night.
Evie put her arm around Lisa. “Shhh,” she said, patting Lisa’s back. “Shhh.” It was a gesture of kindness, a well-worn habit, appreciated even for the placebo it was. “Shhh,” Evie repeated. “Think about the snow,” she said, her words soft, muted, woven through wheezes. “Think about the light. Think about the air.”
Lisa’s chest relaxed as the spasms waned. “Light and air,” she repeated. “Someday, Evie, I’m going to sit in a house at high noon, close all the windows and curtains, and do nothing but rejoice in the dark and mustiness.” She attempted a half-hearted giggle, not wanting to wake the monster that lay in wait at the bottom of her lungs. “Light and air will be the death of me, Evie.”
“Light and air,” Evie whispered, “will be the death of me, Lisa, not you. You are strong. You will survive.”
“Shhh, Evie. You will survive.” Lisa raised her head and looked into Evie’s eyes. “You will survive, Evie. And you’ll come to my house for Christmas. And you’ll skate on the lake.”
“And dream of Johnny?”
Lisa put her head back on the pillow. “Yes. You will dream of your own Johnny.”
“Lisa,” Evie whispered. “Tell me again about last Christmas. Tell me about you and Johnny.”
“Oh, Evie.” Lisa closed her eyes, her hand still holding her chest, still over her heart. “I don’t know if I can talk right now,” she said. Another cough born in the depths of her lungs struggled and came to the surface. Others responded from down the line, a pied piper of coughs, followed by hacking and sputters, a harrowing tune of sickness, despair. I’m alive. I’m still alive. Are you?
“Christmas,” Lisa said. Christmas Eve was always the most special night of the year for Lisa. Her Aunt Regina would make the drive from Springfield, bringing gifts galore. Lisa loved Aunt Regina, a spinster, a professor at the college in Holyoke, the only one in the family who went to college. "You’ll certainly go to college," she had said to Lisa, as if there was any doubt about Lisa’s future.
Lisa’s father would play the old upright piano in the living room and everyone would sing tunelessly but with fervor, the joy and the spirit of the songs far outweighing the embarrassment of singing off-key.
And the food. The Lidestri family was pure Italian, despite the fact that Lisa’s mother’s maiden name was O’Hare; the Italians had overwhelmed Lisa’s mother, the quiet Irish girl, taking her in and making her one of their own. Lisa’s mother learned to cook at her mother-in-law Rosa’s side. "You shouda been born Italian," Rosa had said. "You cooka soo good!"
And she did. Starting early in the day, they would celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, one fish following another. There would be scungilli and calamari, swordfish and anchovies, in casseroles and on pasta, or laid neatly on a plate with a tiny serving fork.
And the pasta. Baked with tomatoes, or freshly pressed and cut into strips, served only with a hint of olive oil and basil.
And the cookies and pastries that the women in the family started baking in November, kept hidden in the back of dark closets until they were ceremoniously presented after the sun went down on Christmas Eve.
And midnight mass, which was really at eleven and the entire family was home, gathered around the kitchen table by midnight. Midnight, when they would raise and clink glasses of Cynar to celebrate cousin Nate’s Christmas birthday with a hearty song whose lyrics ´Hooray for Nathan for he’s a horse´s ass!´ had a story attached to it that would be told with guffaws of laughter every year, as if the story hadn’t been told a thousand times before.
“Tell me about last Christmas,” Evie quietly reminded Lisa.
“It was Christmas day,” Lisa started. “Nana Rosa was cooking in the kitchen and Mom was cleaning up wrapping paper in the living room. The boys –”
“Joey and Anthony.”
“Joey and Anthony. They were doing chores out in the barn.”
“Because chores need to be done everyday, even holidays,” Evie said, her words coming out between uneven breaths.
“Right.” Lisa thought of her younger brothers in the barn, throwing frozen cow patties at each other like baseballs, playing king of the mountain on the hay stacked to the rafters, tussling and rolling around in the snow.
“Right, Evie. I’m okay.”
Evie put a finger on Lisa’s lips. “Let me tell it,” she said. “And then Johnny drove his car up the road to your house. You could see it in the distance; you watched him from the kitchen window, weaving back and forth on the slippery road.”
Lisa brushed Evie’s finger off her mouth. “Right.”
“And you grabbed your Mom’s jacket and ran outside.”
“And he skidded to a stop, almost hitting the house.”
“Who’s telling this story?”
“Me. It’s my story now.” Evie shifted a bit in the bed. They had all learned to move in ways that would release the energy from a laugh without causing their lungs to convulse. It was only laughter that required this, though; sadness required no movement at all.
Lisa smiled. “It might as well be your story, I’ve told it to you so many times you know it by heart.”
“I can see it all so clearly in my mind.”
“Then keep going. Keep telling your story.”
“His car skids to a stop. He opens the door and jumps out, runs to you. He smiles. And you think he is so handsome in his new uniform. And the hat! He looks so … manly.” Evie held the blanket over her mouth to contain a phlegmy giggle, her girlish nod to Johnny’s manliness. “Then, he reaches in his pocket and takes out a small box. He smiles at you again, opens the box, and takes out the ring.”
“Yes,” said Lisa. “It is a beautiful ring.” With her thumb, she touches the ring he put on her finger that day, last Christmas, a finger now so thin from disease that she has to wrap yarn around it to keep the ring from falling off.
“And then he kissed you.”
The monster in Lisa’s lungs roared; her knees bent to her chest. Evie kept her arms tightly wrapped around Lisa until slowly her breathing returned to what was their new normal. Shallow, raspy, difficult.
“What’s that?” Evie lifted her head at the sound of bells jingling in the distance.
“It’s Santa Claus, Evie.” Lisa could barely speak.
“Yes, and he’s going to stop right here and ask us if we want to hop into his sleigh and go live with him at the North Pole.”
“Oh.” Evie was quiet for a moment. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Living at the North Pole, I mean.”
“Evie. You´re eighteen. You know there’s no such thing.”
“Oh, I know, Lisa. But just imagine. Christmas all the time. Presents and cookies….”
“And elves. Don’t forget the elves.”
“I know you think I’m childish, but it would be Heaven,” Evie’s sigh was like the low notes on a harmonica.
“Heaven.” Lisa touched Johnny’s ring.
The sound of the jingling bells became louder, jangling to the beat of a horses trot.
“It’s not Santa, Evie. It’s the farmer on the other side of the big fence. He must have a sleigh.” The sound of the sleigh bells crescendoed, then faded.
The wind picked up. Heavy snow filtered through the thin screens on the sleeping porch, dusting the foot of their blankets.
“Tell me about kissing Johnny,” Evie whispered.
“You’re telling the story. You tell it.”
“No,” said Evie. “I can’t tell it the way you do. Please. Tell me what it’s like to be kissed.”
Lisa put her lips next to Evie’s ear so she could whisper. She was tired, and her breathing was rough. And talking about Johnny was hard.
“He put his arms around me, pulling me so close I could feel his heart beating right next to mine.” She took a shallow breath, and another. “He looked at me so … I felt like he could read my thoughts.” She smiled. “I think he did, because then he put his lips on mine.” Lisa sunk deeper under the blankets and pulled them over the back of her head, keeping her face exposed to the night air. “I’m so cold. You’re not warm enough,” she said to Evie.
“I’m sorry about Johnny,” Evie said. She turned and put her arms around Lisa, pulling her as close as she could, sharing what little warmth she had with her friend.
Someone down the line coughed and moaned loudly. You okay?
A cough was the only response.
“Tell me about Heaven, Lisa.”
“I don’t know anything about Heaven, Evie.” Lisa turned her head, her eyes wide open, caught by a single star visible through a break in the clouds.
“Do you think it’s like the North Pole?”
Lisa shivered. “Yes. It’s just like the North Pole.”
Evie coughed. “Everyone is happy in Heaven. That’s what they say, right?”
“That’s what they say.” Lisa hunkered further down beneath the covers.
The farmer in his sleigh made another go around the pasture, the slow rhythm of the bells ushering in the darkest part of the night.
“Don’t worry about Heaven.” Lisa coughed.
“I’m not worried about Heaven. I like thinking about it. It makes me less afraid if I think about what it might be like ….” Evie’s words struggled out from between rattling wheezes. “Heaven’s going to be warm, hot, like sitting by a roaring fireplace in the dead of winter, the dead of winter ….”
From down the line of common sufferers, a deep raspy voice began to sing. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot...” only to be choked off by a ghastly breath and cavernous cough.
Another picked up the refrain. “And never brought to mind.”
Then another. “Should auld acquaintance….”
“And days of auld lang syne.”